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Digitally departed: A guide to avoid being haunted by an online afterlife

BY Zachary Green and Xander Landen  December 6, 2014 at 11:28 AM EDT  | Updated: Mar 13, 2015 at 2:58 PM
The sun rises behind the entrance sign to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park before the company's IPO launch, May 18, 2012. Facebook Inc, will begin trading on the Nasdaq market on Friday, with it's initial public offering at $38 per share, valuing the world's largest social network at more than $100 billion.   REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach   (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS) - RTR328RK

The sun rises behind the entrance sign to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park as seen on May 18, 2012. As our digital lives become more complicated, one important question begs asking: How can we tie up all of our loose ends to avoid being haunted by a digital afterlife? Credit: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

When someone dies, he or she inevitably leaves behind a digital footprint composed of social media profiles, e-mail accounts, photos and other documents that may otherwise hang in an online limbo.

As our digital lives become more complicated, one important question begs asking: How can we tie up all of our loose ends to avoid being haunted by a digital afterlife?

The answer may surprise you.

Because of varying terms of service, only some websites offer end-of-life options. And dozens of commercial websites have emerged over the last few years to help.

Here are a few:

Facebook introduces “legacy contacts”

In February, the social media giant announced that it would allow users to designate a “legacy contact,” a Facebook friend who can manage a person’s account after they’ve died.

Legacy contacts will be allowed write a post on a deceased user’s Facebook wall (such as a final message or information about a memorial service), change their profile picture or cover photo, and respond to friend requests. They can also download material which has been posted on the account.

However, they will be unable to delete an account or read private messages on the account.

Facebook also allows user profiles to be  “memorialized,” which limits the account from popping up on news feeds and blocks it from outside use, or the option of deleting a user’s account entirely upon their death.

Google offers “end-of-life” service

In 2013, Google began offering an end-of-life service called Inactive Account Manager, which allows users of many of its products the option of deciding what happens to their data. Users can specify when their account is treated as inactive and add trusted contacts who should be notified to delete or share data with specific people after a set period of inactivity.

Posthumous messages greet loved ones on special occasions

Sites such as Afterwords and My Goodbye Message allow users to write messages to friends and family to be sent after the user has died. Some sites like To Loved Ones even allow users to time messages to be sent on specific occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries.

Digital vaults keep online information secure

End-of-life services like TheDocSafe and Death Switch allow people to place important information, such as bank statements, usernames, and passwords, into secure online storage. The user designates one or more trusted people to release the information to, once he or she has passed away.

Online memorials keep memories alive in the digital space

Memorial sites allow loved ones to set up web pages devoted to a deceased person’s memory. Some sites like Bcelebrated actually allow the user to set up their own memorial page ahead of their death.

For more end-of-life services, visit TheDigitalBeyond.

For more from NewsHour on digital death and online estate planning, including an interview with TheDigitalBeyond.com co-author, Evan Carroll — see our earlier reporting: Law Lags Behind in Defining Posthumous Protocol for Online Accounts.